Japan sends biggest warship on Southeast Asia mission

Japan has sent its biggest warship on a mission to tighten ties with Southeast Asian countries it sees as potential allies in an effort to keep China’s regional sea territory claims in check.

Military officers from 10 Southeast Asian states have joined the Izumo helicopter carrier on a tour of waters that Tokyo invaded 75 years ago and where Beijing is now asserting its influence.

The four-day trip is high on symbolism and comes after a flurry of bilateral agreements for Japan to provide military aid to countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines that also have ocean boundary disputes with China. Increasingly tense territorial conflicts in both the South and East China Seas are entwined with Beijing’s broader goal to curb Washington’s long military supremacy in the Pacific. 

On Tuesday, Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said Japan’s “latest display of defence diplomacy” was a positive step that would be welcomed in the region. “It signals Tokyo’s political will in taking baby steps to establish itself as a security player in Southeast Asia, which comes at a critical moment when American interest in the region is in grave doubt”.

Officers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations have joined the Izumo on the tour of the South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety. The exercises for the visiting personnel include seminars on maritime law — in an apparent reference to Beijing’s refusal to accept an international court judgment last year that threw out its main territorial arguments.

“Through seminars on international law and the observation of training exercises, we’re working towards a shared understanding in order to realise the rule of law and support the architecture for maritime security,” said Tomomi Inada, Japan’s defence minister. 

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